Efficiency or “Ca Canny.” Which is the Policy for the Workers?
“The system of the past has led to certain developments on the part of labour which are definitely anti-social. The deliberate restriction of output, the system known as “ca canny,” has its roots in the incessant struggle of capital and labour.”
The above appeared in a recent article by A. G. G. in the “Daily News & Leader” (9.8.15). As will be immediately noticed, the writer assumes that we live under a different system to-day from that before the war. Like most writers that assume this much—and there are many—he neglects to show wherein the difference exists. True, the Government have “nationalised” the railways and are exercising some control over other concerns. But the status of those who operate these concerns, as well as the rest of the working class, has not changed : they are as much wage-slaves to-day as they were before the war.
For the sake of clearness it will be as well to describe, as briefly as possible, what the system was that we lived under previous to August 4th, 1914. The land, mines, railways, factories, machinery, and all those things required by human beings to satisfy their material needs, were owned by the capitalist class. The working class owned nothing but their labour-power, which, if they did not wish to starve, they had to sell to some member or members of the capitalist class. Labour-power was a commodity, the only commodity that the workers had to dispose of in a world in which the bulk of the wealth took the form of commodities.
The price of labour power, called wages, which represented the standard of living for the workers, was not fixed by them : it found its level as a result of the same law that governed the price of other commodities—the labour-time necessary to its production. An ever-increasing army of unemployed intensified the competition between the workers and supplied the capitalists with the necessary lever to keep wages down to the level of a mere subsistence. When the workers endeavoured to force up wages, by withholding their commodity, the armed forces —controlled by the executive of the capitalist class were used to frustrate their efforts.
Previous to August, 1914 the workers were compelled to labour unceasingly to enrich an idle master class, they themselves living and dying in poverty. That was the system; wherein has it changed since that date ?
The buying and selling of labour-power is still the fundamental principle that governs social conditions and is responsible for class antagonism. The basic principle of the system remaining, the system itself is unimpaired, and those who write of the system of the past, unless they refer to Feudalism and craft guilds, chattel slavery or early communism, merely expose their ignorance as to the meaning of the word “system” when applied to society.
The purpose of this article was not to expose the ignorant or malicious misrepresentations of capitalist writers. Being, however, obliged to quote the phrase it was necessary to deal with it. What every worker must be more directly concerned with is the accusation that immediately follows it. It is difficult to imagine a more impudent slander than is contained in the assertion that the workers by restricting output are “definitely anti-social.” The dullest intellect knows that the less he does, the more there is left for other workers to do. If a worker laboured effectively only two days a week he would yet contribute that amount of labour-time to the satisfaction of human needs, while his accusers contribute nothing. The working class produce all wealth and own none. The master class produce nothing yet own all. A parasitic class that consumes without producing is itself anti-social in every bone and fibre, in every action, in its very existence ; because it exists by plunder, and what can be more “definitely anti-social” than plunder ?
When the Roman plebians struck against the Roman patricians, the patrician Agrippa told them that the patrician belly fed the plebian members of the body politic. Agrippa failed to show that you feed the members of one man by filling the belly of another. And A. G. G. must utterly fail to show how the workers are acting anti-socially by restricting output, when they actually produce all the wealth in existence. The impudence of Henenius Agrippa—designed to cover up a system of plunder that could not hold a candle to capitalism-finds its parallel in the modern State with its boasted democracy, freedom, and civilisation.
Of course it is quite true that this parasitic class claims to perform a function which is just as necessary as the actual work of production performed by the working class. But none of their defenders—though trained to the business—have ever succeeded in making their claim good. The ruling class of to-day is essentially an idle class, a class that knows only three objects : the accumulation of wealth, the pursuit of pleasure, and the stability of their system. The accumulation of wealth, they fondly imagine, will ensure the other two, Who is not acquainted with the saying, “wealth is power”? Money will buy troops and police to dragoon the workers when rebellious ; it will buy politicians, priests and labour hacks to persuade, gull and chloroform them when that way promises the best results. The “educational” process operates almost from the cradle. How many axioms could we not quote that are regularly instilled into the minds of the young, calculated to bear fruit in after years, by swelling the vast wealth owned by the ruling-class? “Industry brings its own reward” is only one of these capitalist proverbs proved to be a lie by the vast majority of workers long before they reach the age of thirty—unless “reward” is to be understood satirically, and a shattered constitution and hopeless poverty are not penalties but “blessings in disguise.”
Since the blighting influence of capitalism, poisoning or destroying everything that was healthy in human society, first developed, efficiency has been the constant cry of the capitalist. It has always meant less wages for the working class and more wealth for the master class. Under capitalism it is intensified exploitation of the working class. The workers are driven by competition, fair promises or slander, to increase their powers of wealth production, but lack the knowledge that would enable them to retain and enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Efficiency, or the ability of the individual to perform a necessary task adequately and with the smallest possible expenditure of energy and time, would, given a genuine co-operative organisation of society, result in a maximum of time for leisure, recreation, etc. for all. A. G. G., accepting efficiency as an abstract principle that must be good under all circumstances, pretends not to see that under capitalism its development only increases the poverty and wretchedness of the working class. In a vague way he seems to realise that it is absurd to preach efficiency to the workers. He not only says “that restriction of output has its roots in the incessant struggle of capital and labour,” meaning, of course, the two classes that respectively own capital and labour-power-which is an unqualified acknowledgment of the class war, and the conflict of interests that arises through the buying and selling of labour-power. But he also recognises and says “that the way to true organisation is through the development of the co-operative principle in society.”
To sum up, he admits the existence of the class war; declares that true organisation can only come through co-operation, and accuses the workers of being anti-social. He entirely neglects to charge the master class with the same crime ; either on the grounds that they live by exploitation, or even by exposing such details of the system as the formation of rings and trusts, the cornering of wheat, or the deliberate destruction of wealth in many forms, in order to force up prices.
Under capitalism the invention and introduction of labour-saving machinery and the higher skill and efficiency of the workers can have but one result, a decreasing demand for labour-power. What that means should be patent to every worker; ; an ever-increasing army of unemployed whose existence, combined with the desire of the capitalist for cheap labour-power, causes a steady reduction in the standard of living of the working class. It is because many workers have recognised this that ca canny has flourished. When “co-operative principle” has been established; when the people own and control the means of wealth production, efficiency will be cultivated by them because it will enable them to perform their share of the necessary social labour in the shortest possible time, leaving them a maximum time for recreation and enjoyment.
Meanwhile, those who play at ca canny (conserving their only commodity, labour-power) are wise in their day ; but that is all. Such practices cannot hold up the march of capitalism. All the petty tricks resorted to by the workers to resist exploitation are being discovered and rendered inoperative by one device or another. Their schemes to combat speeding up, and their organisations to prevent reductions in their standard of living become more futile almost daily. Their chains are being rivetted more rigidly about their limbs. The master class is uppermost in the class struggle, and emancipation—like the “willo’ the wisp”—seems to play us strange pranks ; but it always beckons onwards those who recognise their slavery, to combat the forces of capitalism. The class struggle is worthy of recruits in the working-class cause, and “every recruit means earlier peace” ; a peace that must endure because society will no longer be split into classes with conflicting interests.